I’ve loved the X-Men since I was about ten. Movies, comic books, novels, tie-ins, toys, all the way up to the latest movies, I’m about it. So, my first reaction when I heard about The Gifted was to wonder if they would have anything new to say. They don’t necessarily have to, the first X-Men movie was 17 years ago now and if a new show covering the same ground brings in new fans and introduces new people to the wonder that is X-Men, awesome. But I want my media to say something, to exist for a reason. If it’s just a bland cash-grab, well, need I say more? The reason doesn’t have to be deep or serious all the time, just be present.
The Gifted is indeed different, though, and it’s saying things. I readily admit that the acting is kinda bad, but I still can’t bring myself to mind it because the scripts are so good.
Let’s proceed on the basic assumption that the X-Men and Marvel’s mutants are allegories for queer people. Of course they can stand in for other groups too, not least “nerds,” and sometimes they’re just a set of superheroes like many others, but it’s no great revelation that they have a special significance for queer people. It’s called metaphorical representation. The link is made more explicit in books like God Loves, Man Kills and with queer X-Men like Northstar and Iceman.
That said, while those themes are consistently X-Men, The Gifted presents a tangible feeling of being an oppressed minority that I haven’t seen in the X-Men before. It’s there in the movies and some comics, but in a more dramatic and stylized fashion. The movie characters are usually safe, they’ve found Professor X. If they’re still struggling to get by, they often end up villains. Either way, their struggles to be accepted are writ large on a societal level. Instead, The Gifted feels immediate, realistic, and painful. These characters are struggling to eat because they can’t get jobs with visible mutations. Their families are disowning them, they’re subject to violence on the street, and the whole culture finds it acceptable to systematically exclude them and wait for them to die.
This vibe became apparent to me as I queued up the show — as the blurbs indicate, it mostly follows one family of four after the teens are revealed as mutants and the family goes on the lam — and I initially worried about it being from the perspective of the allies, the parents. but it’s such an ensemble show and the issue is handled so well that I have no extant complaints. and the parents are learning that it’s not enough to not hate mutants, that if it wasn’t their own kids who were mutants they would never stick their necks out. The father, Reed Strucker (Stephen Moyer from True Blood), is a particularly interesting character because he’s got the basic outline of a “good guy,” a prosecutor who cares about right and wrong and the people he’s prosecuting, but he’s not a crusader. He’ll put his family first and make whatever deal he has to for their protection, but even that is a little understated. The scripts skirt around his motivations for a while. I read once that the best way to describe a character in a book is to pick one adjective that best encapsulates them and then never use that word — it forces you to come up with more creative ways to show who they are, and draws the reader in to make the connection to the character’s core identity rather than laying it all out and seeming obvious. It almost feels like The Gifted is doing that with their whole plot, and I love it. It makes me care, makes me want to see more.
I wouldn’t call it an ensemble show, many of the characters don’t interact at all, but it is a group story, following various people as exemplars of what’s going on in their world. That’s why it doesn’t feel like a story about minorities told about their allies. The mutant Dreamer’s characterization clarifies Reed’s, and vice versa, an asynchronous conversation about the flaws in “I’ll do anything for my family/loved ones” as a guiding principle. The antagonist’s loss of his daughter doesn’t make him a more sympathetic character to me, but serves to illustrate how murky “good” and “bad” are on this level, far removed from the flamboyance of the X-Men and the Brotherhood. Thunderbird, who’s my favorite character because he’s the most self-possessed and least self-involved, brings out issues with intersectionality and the very common minority experience of fighting for your country in the military and then having the country reject you anyway. And although I say he’s the least self-involved, don’t get me wrong, the other characters all have very pressing personal issues. I find Polaris offputting because she’s dangerous and unstable, but she’s supposed to be like that, and she would be and deserves to be, because of what she’s been through. The characters’ interest in themselves, or rather their focus on one immediate crisis at a time, is not only entirely realistic but sets up a dynamic where the worldbuilding is a step removed. We get things in glimpses. So I’m that much more eager for each dribble of information.
I do tend to play mobile games and whatnot while I watch The Gifted because the bullying scenes (etc.) are pretty rough, but I’m relating to it so much at the same time, because much as queer people love their progress narrative, as a historian, I don’t see progress. I see bad periods and better periods in Western history, but none where we’re safe or okay. And I love optimistic stories, that’s why I love Star Trek and don’t usually like dystopias, but there’s something to be said for the relatability of “look how much this goddamn fucking sucks” too. That’s why I liked that episode of The Orville about gender that nobody else liked. There’s an expectation of a triumphant “we win and everyone’s happy and the bad guys change their minds,” but that’s not how it’s ever gone for us.
Where I am, halfway through season one, I’m still waiting to see any out queer characters or characters with disabilities (another major metaphorical-representation link for the X-Men), but right now the commentary is pointed and I want to see how far they can push the mutant allegory in its own right. Aside from just being X-Men and me loving X-Men, The Gifted‘s combination of despair and rage with a little bit of hope, all presented in a very average-person way rather than the stylized nature of most superhero media, it’s just doing something for me right now. I don’t know if this will be my favorite version ever or anything, especially if the acting doesn’t improve, but they’ve got me on the hook.
Are you watching The Gifted, The Orville, or any other new shows this year? Let me know what you think!